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Pullen Memorial Baptist Church of Raleigh

By Ryan Lovingood

Pullen Memorial Baptist Church is a 700-member[1] Baptist church located at 1801 Hillsborough Street in Raleigh, North Carolina. Pullen was established in May 1884 as a mission of First Baptist Church of Raleigh and later organized as "Fayetteville Street Baptist Church" on December 28, 1884. After the death of its lay leader John T. Pullen in the spring of 1913, the congregation voted to rename themselves "Pullen Memorial Baptist Church[2]" Pullen has a long reputation of a church with a progressive leadership and congregation[3] during the Civil Rights Movement, Pullen was known as a safe haven for discourse between the races. The congregation was known to take up civil rights issues within the church and on the streets of North Carolina[4].

Pullen is affiliated with American Baptist Churches USA[5] and The Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists[6].

I. Pullen Church 1884-1982

Pullen Baptist Church began as a mission of the First Baptist Church of Raleigh in May 1884, later organized as Fayetteville Street Baptist Church (after Fayetteville Street in Raleigh, North Carolina) on December 28, 1884. The church was lead by strong lay leadership (in the absence of a pastor) including John T. Pullen until his death in May of 1913, upon Pullen's death the congregation decided to rename themselves "Pullen Memorial Baptist Church" in honor of Pullen who dedicated himself to the church. Pullen went through a time of instability of pastor leadership until J.A Ellis assumed the role of pastor in August of 1919, beginning the history of Pullen's tackling of "controversial social issues[7]." Pullen approved the election of women as deacon in 1927, 8 years after women's suffrage, which was frowned upon by many other Baptist congregations in the area who believed the man to be the spiritual head of the household and church. J.A. Ellis left Pullen in 1929 for First Baptist Church of Sherman, Texas where he continued social work (including improving race relations) in the deep South[8]. Another social reformer took the helm of Pullen in 1929, E. McNeill Poteat Jr. began as pastor of Pullen in September of 1929 following the departure of J.A. Ellis. As pastor of Pullen Poteat helped form the North Carolina Council of Churches in 1935 which forged connections between Christian denominations across the state[9]. Upon the death of Poteat in in 1956 W.W. Finlator became the head pastor of Pullen in July, 1956. Finaltor believed that the pastor should "preach with one hand on the Bible and a newspaper in the other" throughout his time at Pullen he solidified the churches reputation as a "liberal" church by fighting segregation, poverty, capital punishment and war. Finaltor was a standout among his white counterparts, prior to the Civil Rights Movement Finaltor spoke out from the pulpit and the street against segregation. He was also a proponent of women's rights, nuclear disarmament, and one of the first religious leaders to embrace the idea of gay rights (See picture below, Image courtesy of IndyWeek.com)[10]. Finlator was also intergal in the affirming of all people regardless of race into membership of Pullen and full membership of Christians who transferred membership from different denominations. This almost resulted in Pullen's ouster from the Baptist State Convention. Pullen joined the American Baptist Churches, USA in 1967. Finlator was forced to retire from Pullen in 1982 because his progressive views had exceeded those of his congregation[11].

II. Pullen Church 1982-1991

In the mid-1980s under the leadership of progressive pastor Mahvin Siler, Pullen began the process of using inclusive language in their worship which include using gender-neutral language in scripture, song, worship, and using feminine, masucline, and gender-neutral images while referring to God and humanity. This was done in order to bring to light the complementary male and female metaphors of the Bible and to expand the view of God and God's people[12].

III. Pullen Church 1991-Present

Pullen's reputation as a liberal, welcoming church continued inthe 1990s under Siler. Pat Long in her entry on Pullen inQueering Religion details the journey to "unqualified acceptance of gay/lesbian Christians" within the Pullen congregation which was adopted in 1992[13]. Siler preached a sermon in 1988 about human sexuality in which he said sexuality was not chosen. He further remarked that it was "cruel of the church to judge as an abomination what God has given in the creation of a person" He further affirmed in the sermon the appropriateness of caring relationships between same-sex persons. In 1990, Siler and the deacons of Pullen began the process of becoming a congregation that explicitly included gay and lesbian members.In October of 1990 Pullen held open forums to discuss homosexuality and concerns that members had. In 1991 at the urging of Siler and Long, the board of deacons took up the issue of blessing a same-sex union between Kevin Turner and Steven Churchill. The issue of full inclusion and the blessings of same-sex unions was brought to a vote in February 1992, the full inclusion of gay and lesbian members passed with a yes-vote of 94% and the blessing of same-sex unions passed with a yes-vote of 64%. Kevin Turner and Steven Churchill's union was blessed by Siler on March 15th, 1992 at Pullen Church[14]. By accepting homosexual members into their congregation Pullen soon faced backlash from the Raleigh Baptist Association and the Southern Baptist Association. The Raleigh Baptist Association voted in 1992 to withdraw Pullen from fellowship and the Souther Baptist Association soon followed[15]. Pullen soon joined the American Baptist Church, USA fellowship and the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists. Mahan Siler retired from Pullen in June, 1998 and Jack McKinney was named pastor in 2000. In 2002 McKinney recommended the appointment of lesbian Associate Pastor Nancy E. Petty who had been a part of Pullen since 1992 as co-pastor of Pullen. Petty was elected co-pastor on April 21st, 2002 making her the first female pastor. Petty is currently the sole pastor of Pullen. In November of 2011 the congregation of Pullen affirmed the following statement "Pullen Memorial Baptist Church has a longstanding tradition of supporting the rights of all citizens to equal protection under the law. We find that current North Carolina law and the proposed amendment to the North Carolina Constitution that “Marriage between a man and a woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state” discriminate against same-sex couples by denying them the rights and privileges enjoyed by heterosexual married couples. As people of faith, affirming the Christian teaching that before God all people are equal, we will no longer participate in this discrimination.

Consequently, the members of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church affirm the following:

1. Marriages between same-sex and opposite-sex couples will be treated equally, and marriage ceremonies conducted at our church will reflect the spiritual nature of the solemn commitments between two people in a loving relationship.

2. To obtain legal sanction for their union, heterosexual couples may obtain their legal marital contract from another source such as a local magistrate until such time as the State of North Carolina recognizes the legal union of both heterosexual and same-sex couples[16].